Thursday, August 19, 2021
By Co-Editor Jonathan Todres & Adrianna Zhang
With the number of COVID-19 cases rising again, children in the US are facing the potential of a third straight school year being disrupted by the pandemic. Yet as policymakers and school administrators make decisions about reopening protocols, an essential group has been largely left out of the conversation: young people.
The U.S. prides itself on being a beacon of democracy. But 73 million constituents have little to no voice in our democracy. Politicians consistently overlook and marginalize individuals under 18 years old. Over the past year, policymakers have spent more time talking about and prioritizing reopening restaurants and bars than addressing the housing insecurity, educational disruptions, and mental health consequences of the pandemic that millions of children have experienced.
These are big issues to confront, requiring complex solutions. What is baffling is that in many areas, decision-makers are attempting to address school issues—or any issues affecting children—without ever talking to young people. Young people are not just part of some elusive future; they are ready to contribute to their communities now.
The government, at every level, must become more accessible to and inclusive of youth, especially those from historically underrepresented groups. Youth engagement will introduce new perspectives on current issues and help inspire solutions to persistent problems. As the new school-year is beginning, education is an obvious starting place for including young people’s voices.
Schools can start by surveying young people about challenges they face and any ideas they have for ensuring all students succeed. To be clear, listening to children should not replace communications with, and input from, parents and other caregivers—parents and caregivers are essential partners. But young people have insights that adults don’t, just as adults have perspectives that young people don’t. There is absolutely no downside to hearing from young people, unless we’re afraid of what they’ll tell us.
So, survey all students. Young people’s tech-savvy makes this easier than you might think. Better yet, schools should involve young people in the design of the survey, so they ensure that they ask the right questions and not just questions that serve adults’ interests. Then schools need to set up a process for ensuring ongoing dialogue with young people—all students, not just those they find easy to work with.
A partnership with young people cannot be limited just to individual schools. School district leaders can do better as well. School boards and superintendents should hold their meetings at accessible times so students do not have to miss class to ensure their voices are heard. They also should allocate a designated portion of public comment times to youth.
Other agencies with mandates that affect children—from health care, to transportation, to urban development—should follow suit. Just imagine, for example, what policymakers might learn if they heard from young people about their transportation needs. They would learn that many youth need better transportation systems not just to attend school but also to travel to work so they can help their families economically.
It’s not enough, however, just to open the doors to young people. Governments need to enhance efforts to teach young people how to effectively engage with agencies and make their voices heard. Schools are central to this, but every government agency can provide interactive guidance to young people so they can learn to present their ideas more effectively. Not only will this ensure agencies hear all good ideas, but civic engagement can lead to improved academic performance and enhanced social-emotional wellbeing for students.
Finally, we have to go beyond making existing spaces more open to youth. We need to create more avenues for young people to engage, from direct representation through local youth commissions to statewide ombudsperson offices for children. These exist in some places, but they need to be in all cities and states. At the federal level, young people have already urged President Biden to create an executive “Office of Young Americans” and appoint a “Director of Youth Engagement” who would sit on the Domestic Policy Council.
Partnering with young people will not only help confront pressing issues in schools and other settings, it will also help longer term by teaching young people the skills needed for effective participation in a democratic society, which ironically adults expect them to have the moment they turn 18.
There is no shortage of ways to involve young people. Doing so will help build a stronger democracy. Equally important, young people deserve to have a voice and feel valued in the community they grow up in and will live in for years to come.
The starting point is simple: We need to see, and treat, young people as genuine partners.
Jonathan Todres is a Distinguished University Professor and Professor of Law at Georgia State University in Atlanta. Adrianna Zhang is Founder and Executive Director of SF CHANGE and a high school senior in San Francisco.
Monday, August 2, 2021
by Co-Editor Jonathan Todres and Joseph Wright
For young people, the digital environment is a modern-day playground or park. It is where they hang out, socialize, and learn. But ask any parent or policymaker about children and online environments, and chances are they mostly see health and safety risks.
Protecting children from online exploitation, privacy violations, and manipulative business practices is vital. However, focusing exclusively on protection isn’t enough to ensure the online world is a healthy, positive space for children. It’s like building a playground fixating only on safety, and abandoning any consideration of child development, the importance of play, and children’s social interactions.
Today, online spaces are a focal point of young people’s lives. Young children (8-12 years old) report almost 5 hours of screen time per day, while teenagers report more than 7 hours per day, not including school or homework time. And the COVID-19 pandemic has only added to that.
But as children live more of their lives online, it has become clear that the digital world, like most public spaces throughout history, was not designed specifically for kids. Research shows that the digital environment is adversely affecting children’s cognitive, social, and emotional development. These issues demand a response, but the goal cannot be just to avoid harm. Instead, we must affirmatively mold the digital environment into a space where children can develop and thrive.
Although social media and tech companies might feel too big to control, the digital environment is not a fixed space. It is continuously evolving, so we have the opportunity, and responsibility, to shape the online world into a healthier, more enriching space for young people.
To do so requires several steps. First, we must stop thinking of children as a homogenous group. The needs and capacities of a 15-year-old and 5-year-old differ. Failing to account for these differences infantilizes adolescents and spurs responses that fit poorly with children’s developmental stages. Our policies and strategies must reflect the diversity of childhood and be responsive to child development, just as many playgrounds have different equipment for different ages of children.
Second, we need to see children as individuals with rights and not merely charitable causes needing protection. Yes, children need protection from online exploitation. In fact, they have a right to protection. But seeing children as rights holders means much more than a claim to protection; it means ensuring all rights of children online, including the right to education, to enjoy their own culture, and to play. That also means policies must not deny children their rights in the name of protecting or “saving” them.
Protective measures are needed, especially for young children, but they must be combined with measures that empower young people to navigate online spaces safely and reap the benefits of the online world. Digital literacy education offers one means of achieving this. It’s analogous to teaching children how to develop healthy relationships and avoid toxic or unsafe situations, rather than simply prohibiting them from leaving the house.
Third, we must recognize young people as members of our community who have a right to be heard now, and not only at some ill-defined point in the future. The digital environment can be a space where children learn about their rights and civic duties, make their voices heard, and articulate a better vision for our world. What would have been isolated school strikes to protest climate change 15 years ago have become global movements because of organizing and activism online. While Greta Thunberg’s stand may be one of the most recognizable examples of young people leading, there are countless others. In the United States, young people have emerged as leading voices on gun violence, climate change, racial injustice, and other issues, and they have used social media to build movements and demand action by both policymakers and the private sector.
Embracing these ideas does not mean abandoning efforts to protect children. We must address online exploitation, cyberbullying, and racial and gender-based discrimination online. But we don’t need to settle for harm avoidance as the best we can do. After all, today we design safer parks and playgrounds, where the risk of injury is significantly reduced but young people are still free to express themselves and to explore, interact, and develop.
Ultimately, we need a better vision of what the digital environment can become. Young people are already showing us that. Policymakers and tech companies need to join child advocates and parents in partnering with young people to help reshape the digital environment into a space in which children are not only safe but can thrive.
Jonathan Todres is a Distinguished University Professor & Professor of Law at Georgia State University College of Law. Joseph Wright is a Ph.D. candidate in education and MPH student in community health sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Sunday, October 11, 2020
By Co-Editor Professor Jonathan Todres
October 10th marked World Mental Health Day. Although international days typically do not get much coverage in the United States, World Mental Health Day deserves attention this year due to the significant impact of COVID-19.
In the United States, the epicenter of the pandemic, COVID-19 related job losses, looming evictions, school closures, social isolation, and related issues have spurred stress, anxiety, depression, and other adverse mental health consequences.
The mental and behavioral health consequences have been particularly significant for single-parent families and families with young children. More broadly, evidence suggests that the pandemic is causing an increase in the number of children with mental health issues and worsening children’s existing mental health issues. In addition, COVID-19 related school closings have disrupted children’s access to mental health services. As reported in JAMA Pediatrics, “[A]mong adolescents who received any mental health services during 2012 to 2015, 35% received their mental health services exclusively from school settings.”
The short- and long-term mental health consequences of the pandemic are profound. Although the CARES Act included some funding for mental health services, the second round of stimulus is bogged down in political fighting while children and families continue to suffer. The delays in meeting children’s mental health needs could alter children’s life trajectories.
The occasion of World Mental Health Day highlights three critical shortcomings in the United States. First, we continue to overlook children. Instead of focusing on the safe reopening of schools—and children’s educational, social, and emotional wellbeing—many states have prioritized reopening bars and restaurants. Second, mental health continues to be largely ignored, which tragically is not a new problem in the US. And third, the failure of the U.S. government to embrace children's rights, and human rights mandates more broadly, leaves children and families at a disadvantage—having to rely on charity instead of being able to realize their inherent rights.
Progress on these issues ultimately will require a mindset shift and a recognition that children, mental health, and rights genuinely matter. That’s admittedly a long-term project, when most are focused on the election and events in the near term. But perhaps World Mental Health Day can help start (or rekindle) a dialogue on these underlying issues that are essential to improving the wellbeing of all individuals in the United States.
Tuesday, November 19, 2019
Anniversaries are generally cause for celebration. And this week marks a significant one in the children’s rights world. On November 20, 2019, the global community celebrates the 30thth anniversary of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). What’s impressive about the CRC is not just its breadth of coverage (it’s the most comprehensive treaty on children’s rights) or its widespread acceptance (it’s the most widely-ratified human rights treaty in history). What’s arguably most impressive is its transformative value. The CRC has compelled governments to recognize children as individuals with rights of their own. It has spurred countless laws, policies, and programs aimed at improving child wellbeing. And it has done all this while reaffirming the vital role of the family.
Since the advent of the CRC, we have witnessed significant progress on an array of issues affecting children—under-five child mortality has declined by more than half, school enrollment has increased, child labor has dropped, and gains have been realized in many other areas. So, on November 20th, we should celebrate these positive developments of the CRC era.
And then on November 21, we need to get back to work. Children’s rights—like human rights more broadly—are still a work in progress in every country.
Here in the United States, the “To Do” list is far longer than a short essay can capture. Racial disparities, barriers to education and health care, trafficking and other forms of child exploitation, exploitative child labor, child marriage, and other child rights violations persist in the United States. And arguably the most blatant violations of children’s rights are occurring at the U.S. southern border. As a colleague and I have detailed, the children’s rights abuses perpetrated by the Trump Administration, through its family separation and child detention actions, are extensive. And the trauma inflicted on children, including toddlers, will likely have lifelong adverse consequences. In short, when the last surviving prosecutor from the Nuremberg Trials calls your government’s actions a “crime against humanity,” addressing such gross violations of human rights must be at the top of any priority list.
Of course, the United States is the only country that has not ratified the CRC. Despite this, the treaty can still be an asset we can use to strengthen communities and support children’s development. After all, many of us are guided in our daily lives by moral, ethical or religious principles that are not enshrined in law. Children’s rights law offers the same potential. So while we may have to wait for U.S. ratification of the CRC, children’s rights frameworks can be employed effectively at the state and local level. UNICEF’s Child Friendly Cities Initiative offers one potential model for partnering with cities and towns to help ensure children’s wellbeing.
Finally, perhaps the biggest lesson from the CRC is the value of children’s voices. Article 12 of the CRC establishes that children have a right to be heard. And their voices can make a difference. We need only look to recent youth advocacy on gun violence and climate change to see the positive power that children have and the thoughtful vision they have for their future and ours.
As Eleanor Roosevelt once stated, universal human rights begin ‘in small places, close to home - so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world... Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere.’
Each of us can support and strengthen children’s rights by beginning close to home. We can use the CRC as a guide for creating more rights-respecting communities. And, most important, we can listen to and help ensure that all children are heard on matters that affect their lives.
Monday, December 25, 2017
We are excited to announce that, as part of his Fulbright research, Jonathan Todres will be spending the spring semester in Ireland. Jonathan authored Human Rights in Children's Literature: Imagination and the Narrative of Law. Jonathan will continue his research in this field while in residence at University College Cork School of Law. Jonathan's Fulbright will focus on innovative strategies for human rights education and the implementation of children's rights. Jonathan notes that human rights education in schools reduces bullying and leads children to be better citizens. Children who learn about human rights have understand the universality of rights and can see these rights beyond application to themselves.
Jonathan will work with others at University College who share his passion for children's rights. Jonathan will also meet with scholars througout Ireland who work on chidren's rights and human rights in children's literature. Jonathan will expand his work on universal children's human rights. We look forward to checking in with Jonathan as the semester progresses.
Eirinn go Brach!
Tuesday, December 12, 2017
This week, sixteen-year-old Mohamad Al Jounde from Syria was awarded the International Children's Peace Prize for his work ensuring the rights of Syrian refugee children. When he was 12 years old, Al Jounde, a Syrian refugee himself, decided that he was going to establish a school for children in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley refugee camp. He convinced family members and other volunteers to help build the school and to teach various classes. After only a few years, the school now provides education to 200 children.
Al Jounde’s inspirational work matters so much because Syrian refugee children have suffered both tremendous disruption in their lives and countless violations of their human rights. His work also matters because education has a multiplier effect; as Katarina Tomaševski, former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education, wrote: “Education operates as a multiplier, enhancing the enjoyment of all individual rights and freedoms where the right to education is effectively guaranteed, while depriving people of the enjoyment of many rights and freedoms where the right to education is denied or violated.”
Al Jounde’s work is also a poignant reminder: Not only do children’s rights matter, so do children’s voices. Children are powerful allies in the movement to secure human rights for all. Mohamad Al Jounde’s advocacy on behalf of refugees. Malala Yousafzai’s bravery in standing up to the Taliban. The thousands of courageous children who marched in the Birmingham Children’s Crusade in 1963 to challenge racial discrimination in the United States. And countless other young people who have worked to fulfill the ideal that human rights belong to all. The youth of yesterday and today offer innumerable models of courage.
We should celebrate Mohamad Al Jounde’s work. And, as we do, we should remind ourselves of the transformative capabilities of young people and ensure that their voices and ideas are heard.
Wednesday, October 18, 2017
The shuttle to Logan airport picked me up at 4:40 am. I had given a presentation the day before and was returning home early in time to teach my afternoon class. If you haven’t been on the road before 5:00 am, I recommend it for only one reason: it provides a valuable reminder of how many people work really hard. In the darkness of that hour, while most people are sleeping and most businesses are closed, you'll come across overnight desk clerks at hotels, shuttle drivers, 24-hour gas station attendants, long distance truck drivers, and others working through the night. It has been a long time since I worked all night, but I recall the toll it takes. And for some people, that night shift is one of two jobs they’ll work that day. I suppose, in this bizarro world of today’s politics, I expected to acknowledge that it is possible the hotel desk clerk was in fact an undercover millionaire who just liked working nights. However, contrary to what some politics pundits might suggest, the exception--if it exists--does not disprove the rule. Most people do not prefer to spend their nights working and away from their families. What came to me during the hour-long ride to the airport is the importance of human rights: the right to a fair wage, decent working conditions, health care, and more. Most of us working in human rights understandably focus our energy on individuals or communities confronting urgent and often severe violations of human rights. But being on the road before 5:00 am is a reminder that human rights remains relevant to all individuals, in all walks of life.
Sunday, August 27, 2017
In politics and popular culture, we’ve always had villains, devalued enemies, and others who purportedly stand for everything we are not. They enable us to see ourselves as the heroes of our own stories. This cast of characters has been called many things over the years—scapegoats, savages, evildoers, and worse. Social scientists use the term “otherness” to describe this process, its functions, and its impact. Othering is front and center in U.S. politics today.
The Trump Administration, through both words and actions, has advanced a worldview in which selected people are devalued based on their religion, race, sex, sexual orientation, and national origin. Critiques of this othering rightly focus on the harm that accrues from suggesting certain individuals are lesser human beings or even less than human. But there is another side to othering that is similarly dangerous. Othering operates not only to advance the idea of a lesser Other, but also to perpetuate the idea of the virtuous Self (or dominant group).
Trump offers an extreme, though not unique, version of both sides of this phenomenon. His words suggest that anyone is who not a White, Christian, straight man is Other. And he understands himself as without flaw.
The problem with this myopic view is not only that it inflicts harm on targeted groups, but it also negates any possibility that we might become something better. After all, if we are the best in the world, why would we need to change? The answer is perhaps most easily – and least threateningly – revealed by looking at the sports world. The best athletes achieve and sustain greatness by constantly engaging in self-critique, identifying weaknesses, and addressing shortcomings. So should we, as a society.
Thus far, the dominant response to the horror and tragedy of Charlottesville has failed to do so meaningfully. Many U.S. politicians and commentators have objected to Trump’s comments, responding “this is not who we are.” Although they were right to repudiate Trump’s remarks, resting on “this is not who we are” actually risks further entrenching otherness constructs; it rejects white supremacists as not us, so we can preserve the idea that we are heroes in this story.
To be clear, distancing oneself from white supremacists is not the moral equivalent of marching with KKK members and neo Nazis, despite certain statements about blame belonging to “many sides.” But failing to acknowledge the historical and structural elements of U.S. society that led to white supremacists marching on Charlottesville perpetuates the idea that our broader society is without fault.
Racism, sexism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and other forms of hatred persist in the United States. This is not the result of merely a few deviant actors. Until there is broad recognition of this fact and critical engagement of the complex structural and historical issues that give life to bigotry in this country, condemnation of white supremacist rallies or Trump, while necessary, will fail bring about meaningful change.
Sunday, March 5, 2017
The Business & Human Rights Resource Centre have partnered with Liberty Asia to develop a legal case map of all human rights litigation against corporations. This valuable resource is available here and enables readers to search by topic, company, and legislation relied upon. The project covers a broad range of cases including labor rights violations, human trafficking, climate change and environmental degradation, crimes against humanity, child labor and more. It’s worth a look for anything interested in these issues or human rights litigation generally.
Wednesday, February 1, 2017
Note: The views expressed here are mine and do not necessarily reflect the views of any institution or organization that I work for or have an affiliation with.
Tuesday, January 10, 2017
January is National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month. Despite the tireless efforts of many, as President Obama stated in his recent Presidential Proclamation, “the injustice of modern slavery and human trafficking still tears at our social fabric.” This month provides an opportunity to both raise awareness about the problem and galvanize support for action that can reduce the prevalence of human trafficking.
There is a growing body of law at the international, national, and state levels addressing human trafficking specifically. Although those represent important developments, there has been limited progress on the root causes of human trafficking. That’s where human rights come in. Human trafficking thrives because there is demand for the good and services produced by exploited individuals and because there are millions of vulnerable adults and children.
The foundational principle of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights” – is a direct challenge to the devaluation of human lives that is embedded in the demand side of human trafficking. Human rights education fosters tolerance and reduces disregard for others’ rights. And, when realized, human rights – including the rights to birth registration, health care, education, and housing; labor rights; and the principle of nondiscrimination, to name a few – can reduce the vulnerability of marginalized populations so that they are not pushed into human trafficking settings.
The challenges we face today as human rights advocates are seemingly endless. It’s often difficult simply drawing sufficient attention to rights violations. Human trafficking is one area where everyone from policymakers to parents wants action. Demonstrating the value of human rights to human trafficking can help advance anti-trafficking efforts and serve as a model for applying human rights approaches to other pressing issues.
Tuesday, December 20, 2016
On December 5, 2016, California state senator Dr. Richard Pan introduced the Bill of Rights for Children and Youth in California. The bill will consider aims create a “comprehensive framework” for addressing rights and needs of children.
If approved by the Legislature, the Bill of Rights for Children and Youth in California would achieve two important aims. First, it would provide recognition of California children’s basic human rights, including “the right to parents, guardians, or caregivers who act in their best interest,” “the right to live in a safe and healthy environment,” “the right to appropriate, quality education,” and “the right to appropriate, quality health care.” These are foundational rights that would help ensure that every child in California can develop to his or her fullest potential.
Second, the Bill of Rights would provide a roadmap for action. The Legislature would be required by January 1, 2022 to develop evidence-based policy solutions to secure the rights of all children across the state, determine the resources needed to achieve this framework, and identify and obtain such resources.
Of course, there will be challenges on the road to achieving these goals, particularly in an era of limited budgets, but the Bill of Rights builds in a five-year period to develop appropriate solutions (even though many children really cannot wait until 2022 to access quality education or a safe environment).
No doubt there will be some who resist the first part of the Bill of Rights—the recognition of children’s rights, or human rights more broadly (see, e.g., the recently adopted Mountain View Human Rights City resolution). So let’s be clear on what it means to resist the idea that children have rights.
The foundational principle of human rights is that rights are inherent. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights declares that “[a]ll human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights” (Article 1). Long before that, the U.S. Declaration of Independence proclaimed that “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” In other words, if you are human, you have rights. If you resist the idea that children have rights, you are saying that rights are not inherent, but that they are granted to you by the government only when you reach adulthood.
Perhaps you accept that rights are inherent and thus that children have rights, but you have reservations about the Bill of Rights’ roadmap for action. If your concern is that ensuring health care or safe environments for children is “socialist,” you are overlooking two points (beyond the fact that the U.S. will not become a socialist country): (1) recognizing children have a right to necessary medical care does not mean the government has to be the provider; and (2) if you have time to argue over whether socialism could ever gain traction in the U.S. instead of having to focus on figuring out how to ensure there is food on the table for your children, you are in a privileged position, and not every family or child is.
Second, if your concern is it will cost too much to ensure “quality education” for every child, what you are really saying is that you don’t think it’s a priority. Anyone who has ever worked with a budget, whether it is for an appropriations bill or a grocery list, knows that you must make tough choices. But if you don’t support the idea that every child should have access to quality health care and education, you are saying that our children’s development matters less than every other line item we choose to fund. Surely the future of our children—and thus this country—matters more than that.
I, for one, applaud the California legislature for taking this on, for daring to envision a world in which every child has the care and support needed to develop to his or her fullest potential.
Monday, October 31, 2016
“Can’t we just let kids enjoy Halloween?” Inevitably that’s the response I receive this time of year when I mention the ongoing exploitation of children in the chocolate industry. The answer to that question, by the way, is yes. Yes, children should be allowed to enjoy Halloween, but the evidence on cocoa production is that our enjoyment of chocolate comes at the expense of children in Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire, and other countries.
Enjoying Halloween and supporting efforts to end child labor are not mutually exclusive. Don’t take my word for it. Click here to read what one thoughtful 10-year-old student in New Mexico wrote about the issue (and a list of Fair Trade chocolate brands can be found here).
Thursday, October 6, 2016
Next week is Yom Kippur (Sundown, October 11 to Sundown, October 12), the Day of Atonement on the Jewish calendar. As tradition has it, atoning on Yom Kippur will address only sins against God. For transgressions against other individuals, Jews are obligated to seek forgiveness from and reconciliation with those people first. Yom Kippur also marks the end of the High Holidays, and thus offers the prospects of a fresh start and an opportunity to do better than we did the year before.
While I’m well aware that President Obama is not Jewish (or Muslim—are people still really talking about that?), I’d like to invite him to participate, at least in spirit. And I think the timing is appropriate, because Yom Kippur falls approximately 100 days from the end of the Obama Presidency—leaving one final window of opportunity for the president while still in the Oval Office.
On his inauguration in 2009, newly-elected President Obama boldly proclaimed that “[a]s for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.” Human rights advocates hailed his election and speech as the dawn of a new, promising era of progress on human rights. The past eight years haven’t necessarily lived up to expectations.
So, with little more than 100 days left in the Obama Presidency, I have two hopes. First is that he is reflecting on shortcomings (e.g., no human rights treaty was ratified while he was in office; even President George W. Bush managed to achieve ratification of two human rights treaties). Second is that he will use these final 100 days to do better. Yes, I know he faces significant opposition in the Senate (the Senate’s failure to approve the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was deeply disappointing). But at the risk of sounding naïve, if you aren’t willing to try to advance the ball on human rights when holding arguably the most powerful position in the world, when is the right time?
The “To Do List” for human rights is lengthy. But here are three options for President Obama that can be done within 100 days:
- End the federal government practice of confining migrant children in detention centers. No six-year-old who has fled violence in search of safety should be “welcomed” by being incarcerated. A recent essay by Wendy Cervantes at First Focus sheds light on this practice.
- Ban child labor in tobacco production. The adverse health consequences of tobacco use are well known. Less well-known is the harm inflicted on those who work in tobacco fields, particularly children. In August 2016, 110 organizations called on President Obama to protect children from “acute nicotine poisoning and other health and safety hazards faced by children working in US tobacco fields.” (click here for the letter to President Obama from the Child Labor Coalition and other organizations).
- 3. Send the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) to the Senate. The U.S. is now the only country in the world that has not ratified the CRC. This is the closest any human rights treaty has come to universal acceptance. Since the U.S. signed the treaty in 1995, no President has taken further action. No one can prevent President Obama from forwarding the treaty to the Senate for its advice and consent. Are there sufficient votes in the Senate now for ratification? Probably not. Might some Senators object? Probably. But it’s President Obama’s decision, and sending the treaty to the Senate would be a step forward.
These three opportunities all have two important things in common: First, President Obama has the power to act on all of these. Second, all three steps would help move the United States in direction of ensuring the rights and well-being of children. It’s time for action.
Thursday, June 30, 2016
Even amidst the barbeques, beach trips, and sales during 4th of July weekend, most Americans are quick to declare proudly that July 4th is about our independence, our freedom. However we choose to celebrate/observe the holiday, I think we ought to spend some time asking, independent or free to do what, to be what.
To be clear, though history matters, I am not suggesting we ask what the signatories to the Declaration of Independence wanted, because we know that they permitted, and in some cases embraced, certain ideas we now reject (read: slavery, no voting rights for women, etc.). Independence means we can choose what type of society we want to create.
My wish? I want to live in and contribute to a society that elevates every child and is committed to protecting and ensuring the rights and well-being of all children. On that front, we have a long way to go, as evidenced by the newly-released State of the World's Children report, published by UNICEF. The annual report has sobering news for those who care about children around the globe. And it shows that the United States has work to do as well. Sure, the United States is performing better than many other countries, but the comparative analysis is not the full picture (after all, what parent of a sick child would willingly accept substandard health care for their child, simply because the provider said, well, in Somalia, some kids have no access to care at all). That the U.S. does better than other poorer countries is not anything to celebrate.
We shouldn’t use comparisons to make ourselves comfortable. Instead, we should see them as an indication of what’s possible. So, for example, with respect to infant and child (under-5) mortality, 43 countries with lower rates than the United States show that progress is possible. The U.S. is tied for 44th with Malaysia, Serbia Slovakia, and the United Arab Emirates. And our progress has slowed: in 1990, Cuba’s infant mortality rate was higher than the U.S. rate; they have improved and now do better than the United States.
Each year, the State of the World’s Children report centers around a theme issue; this year, it was inequity. The United States again stood out, for the wrong reasons. UNICEF reports:
- In some rich countries, children from different backgrounds face starkly unequal prospects. For babies born [in the U.S.], the odds of survival are closely linked to ethnicity: In 2013, infants born to African American parents were more than twice as likely to die as those born to white Americans.
- [D]isparities are reflected dramatically at the state level. The infant mortality rate of the state of Mississippi in 2013, for example, was double that of the state of Massachusetts.
And infant mortality is just the beginning. A child’s survival does not guarantee it will have the opportunity to develop to his or her full potential. The Declaration of Independence famously asserts that “all men are created equal.” It seems hard to believe that they intended this literally—equal only at the moment of birth, but thereafter we should be okay with significant inequity in survival rates, access to health care and education.
Of course, children are not the only area where human rights work remains. But success in ensuring children’s rights and well-being is foundational to creating a society where young people can realize their full potential and grow into adults who are empowered to realize their rights and contribute to their communities.
We’re not there yet. But as it’s been 240 years since the Declaration of Independence, it might be time to move a little faster.
Wednesday, June 1, 2016
For many, the arrival of summer conjures up memories of childhood adventures (or, for parents, images of their children playing and exploring). Play and leisure are not typically associated with human rights, but they are part of human rights law and important to children’s growth and well-being.
In fact, the “right to play” is intertwined with other important rights, as Article 31 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child states:
‘1. States Parties recognize the right of the child to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts.
- 2. States Parties shall respect and promote the right of the child to participate fully in cultural and artistic life and shall encourage the provision of appropriate and equal opportunities for cultural, artistic, recreational and leisure activity.’
Play, rest, leisure, and participation in family and community cultural life are all connected. This idea is not new to human rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948, states in Article 24 that: “Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.” In other words, a similar concept was recognized in the foundational document of the human rights movement. Though the drafters of the Universal Declaration and the early international human rights instruments tended to have adults in mind, children are people too. The Universal Declaration applies to children fundamentally because human rights do not depend on governments granting rights; individuals have rights because they are human beings.
While rest and leisure are important in the labor rights context for adults, opportunities for leisure and play are even more critical for children. As Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg explains in an article in Pediatrics:
‘Play allows children to use their creativity while developing their imagination, dexterity, and physical, cognitive, and emotional strength. Play is important to healthy brain development. It is through play that children at a very early age engage and interact in the world around them. … Undirected play allows children to learn how to work in groups, to share, to negotiate, to resolve conflicts, and to learn self-advocacy skills…. Play is integral to the academic environment…. It has been shown to help children adjust to the school setting and even to enhance children’s learning readiness, learning behaviors, and problem-solving skills.’
In short, play contributes in a multitude of ways to the healthy development of the child and can improve a child’s capacity to realize his or her right to education.
Evidence of the importance of play and the rights to rest, leisure and play reinforce two important themes. First, all rights matter: the fulfillment of every right can contribute to the development and well-being of children. Second, there are many ways to support and help realize human rights for all: to create safe environments for children to play and explore their world is to advance human rights.
Tuesday, May 3, 2016
Although the United States stands alone as the only country that has not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), it has ratified two of the three Optional Protocols to the CRC – one on sale of children, child prostitution, and child pornography and the other on the involvement of children in armed conflict. And the time has come for the U.S. government to be reviewed again under the Optional Protocols. The formal session with the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child and the U.S. government is set for May 2017. While that might seem far away, the U.S. government has already submitted its report (available here) on both optional protocols to the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child. For NGOs working on these issues, the deadline for alternative reports is July 1, and the Pre-Sessional Working Group with NGO representatives is scheduled for October 3-7, 2016. ECPAT-USA is again coordinating the lead alternative report under the Optional Protocol on the Sale of Children. Similar efforts are underway on the Optional Protocol on Children in Armed Conflict.
As noted in a previous blog, the review process presents a critical opportunity to advance law, policy, and programs aimed at ensuring children’s rights and well-being.
As the process evolves and, ultimately, as post-review action gets underway, I will continue to provide updates.
Wednesday, April 6, 2016
I recently returned from the Global Summit on Childhood in San Jose, Costa Rica, where hundreds of educators had gathered to explore innovative ways to foster child development and learning. Home to the UN-mandated University for Peace and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, Costa Rica—which also abolished its armed forces constitutionally in 1949—was a fitting location to reflect on and exchange creative ideas about educating young people. And it provided numerous reminders of the importance of human rights education.
Though it often receives less public attention than human rights litigation and policy initiatives, human rights education has been a part of international human rights law since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 26(2) of the Universal Declaration reads: “Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.”
Subsequent human rights treaties—from the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights to the Convention on the Rights of the Child—all mandate and reinforce the importance of education aimed at strengthening respect for human rights, tolerance, and peace.
Human rights education, however, means more than educating about human rights. The UN Declaration on Human Rights Education and Training, adopted in 2011, establishes that human rights education encompasses three critical concepts:
(a) Education about human rights, which includes providing knowledge and understanding of human rights norms and principles, the values that underpin them and the mechanisms for their protection;
(b) Education through human rights, which includes learning and teaching in a way that respects the rights of both educators and learners;
(c) Education for human rights, which includes empowering persons to enjoy and exercise their rights and to respect and uphold the rights of others
In short, creating rights-respecting learning environments and educating individuals in ways that empower them as human rights actors are as important as transmitting knowledge of human rights norms.
It is critical that human rights education receive greater attention and be incorporated more broadly in school curricula in the United States and elsewhere. Research on human rights education demonstrates its capacity to produce numerous positive outcomes for children and adolescents, including an improved sense of self-worth, increased empathy, and a reduction in bullying and harmful behaviors in classrooms. In the end, if people are not taught about their rights and the rights of others, how will they be able to realize their own rights or effectively advocate for others?
For additional resources on human rights education, click here.
Tuesday, March 1, 2016
Early childhood is widely recognized as a critical stage of development. Yet it’s also a stage during which children receive relatively little focus in the public domain. Most children’s early years are spent in the home, largely beyond the reach of law which historically has sought to retain a public/private divide. Yet waiting until children enter the public sphere (by starting school) before attending to children’s rights runs the risk of leaving millions of children at a disadvantage. This is not a call for government interference in the family, but rather a reminder of the state’s obligation to support children’s rights and well-being from birth. And advancing children’s rights means supporting parents and families, so they can provide for their children and ensure their children’s full development.
Supporting early childhood development means accounting for the interrelated and interdependent nature of rights. Not only does the realization of particular rights depend on the fulfillment of others—for example, children’s education rights depend, in part, on realization of their health rights—but the rights of certain individuals are tied to the rights of others. The rights of children and the rights of their parents are linked in this way. Many other governments have acknowledged the indivisible nature of rights and adopted holistic responses to the challenges facing families. Conditional cash transfer programs, which provide funding to families tied to conditions related to health and education, such as regular health care appointments for children and maintaining children’s enrollment in school, offer one example.
In many countries, conditional cash transfer program alleviate some of the financial pressure on low-income families to have their children work rather than attend school. By doing so, these programs help advance children’s health and education rights, while protecting kids from labor exploitation. At the same time, these payments can help bolster the family’s financial security, alleviating pressure on women in particular to pursue riskier employment, thereby supporting women’s labor rights. Brazil has arguably the most well-known program, Bolsa Família, which has provided assistance to millions of families. With women constituting over 90% of the beneficiaries, the program has also had a positive impact on children, “increas[ing] school attendance and grade progression.”
Holistic approaches to the rights of children and their families make sense. One bill recently introduced in Congress advances this approach. Earlier this month, Senator Bob Casey (D-PA), Rep, Joseph Crowley (D-NY) and Rep. Lois Frankel (D-FL) introduced the Child Care Access to Resources for Early-learning Act (Child C.A.R.E. Act) H.R. 4524/S. 2539. The legislation would help guarantee affordable, high-quality child care for working families earning up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level. Guaranteeing access to high-quality child care would simultaneously help advance children’s development while alleviating employment and other economic pressures on working parents.
With sixty-five percent of children under 6 years old living either in families with both parents working or with a single parent working, quality child care is critical both to children and their parents. This bill deserves support, as do other efforts to develop holistic programs that account for the rights of children and their families.
For more on the bill, click here.
Wednesday, January 6, 2016
In Human Rights in Children’s Literature: Imagination and the Narrative of Law, Todres and Higinbotham identify the ways in which human rights discourse appears in children’s literature, and how children’s books thus teach children about their rights and the right of others. The authors conclude that children’s literature is an “important cultural transmitter” of human rights concepts to children. Todres, a law professor at Georgia State University School of Law (and a co-editor of this Blog), and Higinbotham, a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Georgia Institute of Technology, base their conclusions, in part, on a study they conducted with school aged children. In the study, they found that kids readily identify and grasp human rights messages contained in the books they read.
The book is prompted by Article 42 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which contains the obligation to make children’s rights “widely known,” as well as social science research indicating that human rights education has a positive impact on learning, civic engagement, and social behavior.
Throughout the book, the authors explore numerous examples of the ways in which both classic and more recent children’s books convey core concepts contained in the CRC. Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who! and Yertle the Turtle are examined for the important lessons they impart about dignity, the universality of rights, and children’s right to participation. The Day the Crayons Quit, by Drew Daywalt and Oliver Jeffers, illustrates the ways in which children’s literature can transmit and teach key human rights principles of best interests of the child and non-discrimination. The book contains counter examples, as well, including Cinderella and Curious George.
Interdisciplinary in its approach, Human Rights in Children’s Literature weaves together children’s rights law, children’s literature, human rights theory, human rights education and research, and literary theory. Chapters within the book are organized around the core rights and principles contained in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, including participation rights, non-discrimination, right to family and identity, children’s civil and political rights, the best interests of the child, and the right to life, survival, and development, among others.
For those working to bring human rights home, the book offers important and unique insights on the role that children’s literature can play in shaping a culture of human rights, near and far.